Spinach, tomatoes—even apples?
This is a ranching valley. The longtime ranching families in the north end of the Upper East River Valley have been growing hay and raising cattle for more than a hundred years. The common perception is that farming, the growing of food staples, takes place on the other side of Kebler Pass closer to Paonia.
But a new partnership between the local Mountain Roots Food Project and the Crested Butte Land Trust (CBLT) might change that common view.
The idea for the new Alpenglow Farm is moving ahead. The farm will utilize 3.7 acres of land located on a portion of the Niccoli Ranch that was acquired by the CBLT in 2006 in front of Crested Butte South.
Roughly 2.5 acres will be cultivated. The remainder of the space includes the old homestead and several agricultural buildings. Rancher Bob Niccoli will continue to hay the 33-acre hay meadow on the site.
But in the future, as you drive north toward Crested Butte, you could be passing fields of vegetables, greenhouses or hoop houses full of tomatoes and cucumbers, or even a mini orchard featuring hardy varieties of fruit trees.
“This is a great opportunity to dispel the common myth that you can’t grow food here and to model and teach high-elevation/cold climate food production,” says Mountain Roots’ executive director Holly Conn. “In our urban gardens, Mountain Roots has proven that with careful crop and varietal selection, we can grow a surprising range of vegetables, and even some fruits. The volume of organic food we can produce at the Alpenglow Farm is significant, and we can make noteworthy advances in building our community’s food resources. By keeping the focus on education, we’ll be teaching a lot of people how to be more self-sufficient and how to care for the land they love.”
The Land Trust was seeking new ways for people to experience nature on protected lands. After losing two of their production gardens in two years, Mountain Roots was exploring locations for long-term / permanent production. They didn’t know it at the time, but their individual goals were leading to this partnership.
The farm will showcase how sustainable agriculture and protected landscapes can be mutually beneficial to their community. “Conserving open spaces and the incredible views of Paradise Divide and allowing people of all ages to go home with fresh food to put on the dinner table connects people to the land in a whole new way,” said Danielle Beamer, Crested Butte Land Trust’s stewardship manager.
“Bob grew up on the Niccoli Ranch and has been an incredibly helpful neighbor to the Land Trust for many, many years. He has given us invaluable advice and we appreciate his openhandedness in conserving a portion of his family Ranch,” said Ann Johnston, Crested Butte Land Trust executive director. “Although the farm won’t be open to the public this summer, expect to see a few changes taking place as you pass by.”
For outdoor growing, the season will be between mid-May and October. “With careful planning, we can do two succession crops of most greens—lettuces, spinach, arugula, etc.—radishes, turnips, peas,” explained Conn. “Because they take longer to mature, we can grow one full crop of potatoes, carrots, beets, grains, broccoli and cauliflower, cabbages and kales, squash and zucchini, and berries. Of course a greenhouse and hoop house will allow us to start crops earlier for planting outdoors when the weather is more mild, and we may be able to do more successions. In later phases, we will introduce three to four season growing using hoop houses, high tunnels, wallapini, or greenhouses.”
Greenhouse growing will vastly expand the farm’s potential crops and it is definitely a goal for the future. However, any improvements to the farm must be mindful of the conservation values, including the views of Paradise Divide. “We’ll plan carefully and take small steps,” said Beamer.
Conn said the intention is to build and grow a community farm.
“The feedback we have received thus far has identified a significant interest in buying locally produced food,” Conn said. “We see a balance between growing for production and growing for education and research purposes. The farm will also host an education center, providing a wide range of experiential educational opportunities for all ages, such as school field trips, cooking and canning workshops, small animal classes, or intensives like beginning farmer training.”
At this point the organizers have identified the need for a farm manager and an education coordinator, and likely two or three interns or apprentices. The farm manager will be responsible for the daily operations of the farm, like growing and harvesting. The education coordinator will develop and implement programs for youth and adults. The Land Trust and Mountain Roots will jointly oversee and manage both positions. There will also be the need for lots of volunteer and in-kind support from the community.
A pubic meeting on the idea was held last week and about two dozen community members showed up to provide input and learn more about the project. In 2013, the Land Trust and Mountain Roots contracted Kris Holstrom from the Southwest Permaculture Team to conduct a feasibility study for the project, including a layout and management plan. She presented that design and three-phase plan at the meeting.
“We have been awarded a National Civilian Conservation Corps [NCCC] crew through a partnership with the Western Hardrock Watershed Team,” said Johnston. “For two weeks this July, the 12-member crew will provide labor for the majority of the Phase One / land-based infrastructure changes. It’s nearly a $24,000 value.”
“We need to raise $10,000 by the end of June to purchase tools, soils amendments, supplies, so that this crew has all the materials they need to work with,” added Conn. “It will be a fast fundraising effort, and will take the support of the community to get behind this project.”